I met author Jim Averbeck at the SCBWI National Conference years ago. Talented, funny and kind, he was a blast to hang out with. He just released his first picture book, In a Blue Room, illustrated by Tricia Tusa.
I am so happy that Jim agreed to be interviewed.
When and why did you start writing for children?
I served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon from 1990 to 1994. One night I was in bed in my little house in Mokolo, a mountain village in the northern part of the country.
I was listening to echo of the drums the men were playing at a nearby bil-bil (millet beer) bar. For whatever reason, the rhythmic sound put me into a sort of trance. All sorts of images of what I had seen in the country went spinning through my head. They coalesced into a sort of story which became the first children’s book I ever wrote, “Branch and Leaf.” (which is still looking for a home at an welcoming publishing house.)
Mokolo is a town that is on the way to one of the biggest tourist sites in Cameroon, the amazing lunar landscape around the town of Rhumsiki. As luck would have it, a few days after I wrote the story, another Peace Corps Volunteer stayed with me for a few days. She was writing a screenplay and encouraged me to pursue revising my story. She gave me some exercises to help me improve my story, and I was hooked on writing.
That’s the “when.” As for the “why” I write for children, it is because I am a big kid, really.
What is the most valuable advice you can give to a newly published writer?
Being newly published myself, I don’t know how any of the things I am doing will turn out, so I am not certain what advice would be best. I suppose it would be a good idea to write your next story and sell it so you are no longer “newly” published.
What is one of your favorite children’s books that you'd like to recommend?
When I was a child I had a book by Richard Scarry called “The Golden Book of 365 Stories: One for Every Day of the Year” which actually had 366 stories because you got a bonus one for leap year. In particular there was a story about a stuffed tiger that was lost. Each story had an assigned date on which you were supposed to read it, but I went ahead and read that tiger story over and over, no matter the date. I loved the bright yellow and black illustration of the tiger in his overcoat. The end papers had an image of all these animals in pajamas, snuggled up in there holes and burrows, and two children reading the very “365 day” book I was holding. There was something so warm and comforting about this illustration. It was a snowy night and the animals looked so snug in their beds. I loved it.
As an adult I discovered “Outside, Over There” by Maurice Sendak. The lyrical language in this book is so appealing. I highly recommend it.
What are you working on now?
My first picture book “In a Blue Room” is coming out in April, so I am working mostly on the promotional side of things, in an effort to help the book do well. It’s like having a child, really. You want to do whatever you can to smooth its way. “In a Blue Room” was chosen as a premiere selection by the Junior Library Guild, so I am hoping this means it will strike a chord with readers. It is a lyrical bedtime book about the relationship between a mother and daughter. It has a subtle environmental message and a magical twist at the end. The illustrations by Tricia Tusa are out of this world!
What is your favorite dessert and why?
I have a real sweet tooth, so it is tough to choose just one dessert. But if forced to, I would have to say ice cream. I think it is genetic destiny. My heritage is Sicilian, and if you have ever been to Sicily you know that they are wild about ice cream. There is a gelato bar on every corner. When I was in the Peace Corps, I missed ice cream more than my own mother (please don’t tell her!) I was a friend of the consular officer at the American embassy, and when I was in the country’s capital, I often stayed with him. He was able to get ice cream delivered from the states and there were many times when my fellow volunteer Linda and I devoured gallons of the stuff that he had on hand. I showed no shame and felt no remorse. Years later I had a dream that I was at my friend’s house again. He had a whole wall of freezer doors. I searched through all of them and couldn’t find any ice cream. Then I turned to see my friend Linda. She said to me, “If it was sweet and frozen, I ate it!” So I guess that means ice cream is the dessert of my dreams.
Jim Averbeck studied Children's Book Writing and Illustration at the University of California Berkeley. He is a former Regional Advisor for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators for the San Francisco Bay Area, where he makes his home. In a Blue Room is his first book. His second book, Little Spoon-Ears, is forthcoming from Holiday House.
If he could stack all the books he's ever read one on top of the other, and stand on the peak of the stack, he'd be 460 feet in the air - the height of a 46 story building. The view would be great- broad and open -so he figures he'll keep reading to make his tower even taller.